SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In and of itself, the news that the San Francisco 49ers signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a massive, five-year contract extension wasn’t a surprise. What might have caught some off guard, though, is that it happened so quickly.
In general, contracts the magnitude of Garoppolo’s are difficult to pull together. There are many moving parts, which can make finding common ground complicated. Just ask the Washington Redskins.
Conventional wisdom held that a deal would have to wait until at least March, when the Niners would have to place the franchise tag on Garoppolo, and then negotiations could begin. Others believed it possible for those talks to drag out even further as Garoppolo and his agent, Don Yee, waited for other top quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan to ink new deals.
None of that happened. Garoppolo wanted to be a Niner for the long haul. The Niners felt the same about Garoppolo. That’s the message 49ers general manager John Lynch consistently conveyed to chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe, the man in charge of negotiating the contract and handling the team’s salary cap.
“I think Paraag and a lot of people kept saying, hey, it’s a difficult process,” Lynch said. “It’s complex. And what I tried to do is keep pushing the button. Hey, he wants to be here. We want him here. Let’s get it done. Why wait? And so, you know, I think, again, I keep giving them credit, but they deserve it. I think you could belabor it. You could take it in, and people, a lot of people are going to have a lot of ideas on what could have happened. What I’m concerned about is that he’s right here, and he’s signed for five years, and I love that. I think it took a lot of teamwork to get that done, and I’m real proud that it did.”
All of those things make sense when considering why Garoppolo’s deal was finished on Feb. 8, more than a month before free agency begins and nearly two weeks before the 49ers could officially use the franchise tag.
But there was one other significant reason to get the deal done as quickly as it was: setting the Niners up for an offseason in which they have the resources and opportunity to bolster their roster in a way that could make them playoff contenders as soon as the 2018 season.
“We’ve got a piece of the puzzle, and it’s definitely a big one when you talk about the quarterback position,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “[We] plan on continuing to get better in a lot of other areas, and as soon as phase one starts of the offseason, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We know we haven’t accomplished anything yet, but we’re real excited about these pieces we got and can’t wait to get started.”
Having Garoppolo signed well before free agency was important for many reasons but particularly for two primary purposes.
First and foremost, it gives the 49ers a definitive answer at the game’s most important position. They don’t have to worry about backup plans and franchise tags or anything else when it comes to quarterback. With that, they gain cost certainty.
While that cost is undoubtedly huge, the Niners know exactly what they’re going to pay their starter at quarterback for the next five years, and they can plan accordingly when it comes to determining how best to allocate their other resources.
Even with a whopping $37 million first-year cap charge for Garoppolo, the Niners figure to have plenty of cap space to use as they see fit in free agency. Marathe told reporters Friday that the Niners will have around $62 million-$63 million in salary-cap space this offseason, though that presumably already accounts for the roughly $8 million pool for drafted rookies as well as a full 53-man roster instead of the top 51 salaries.
Regardless, only the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts figure to have more cap space than the 49ers when the market opens. That’s more than enough to pursue upgrades at positions of need, such as cornerback, edge rusher, the interior of the offensive line and wide receiver.
“We’re going to be aggressively prudent and always make wise decisions and look out some years and do things, though, that we feel are a fit and give us an opportunity to be a better organization,” Lynch said. “We’re going to make those moves. This takes up some of that room, but that was a trade-off we were happy to make, and we still have a lot left. We’re excited about that as well.”
While money will always be the most important piece of any free-agent pursuit, the Niners also believe that having a franchise quarterback in place will add to their appeal. If nothing else, that could help serve as a tiebreaker of sorts if a player is considering multiple teams.
“I think that’s sort of understood,” Marathe told reporters. “Obviously, we’re not talking to agents for players from other teams right now because the league year hasn’t started. But it’s a great signal. We wanted to build enough time for anticipation. We wanted the good mojo that comes with having him.”
At Garoppolo’s news conference on Friday, he was asked why he decided to sign without trying to squeeze every possible dollar out of the organization. Garoppolo pointed to a close relationship with his teammates and coaches, the team’s 5-0 finish to the season and, yes, the sunny California weather.
Now, as the Niners prepare for the start of free agency on March 14 (teams can begin negotiating with outside free agents on March 12), they hope those things, their copious cap space and Garoppolo himself will make them a desirable place for top players to sign.
“For us, heading into free agency, this is a big deal,” Lynch said. “It’s 75 degrees and sunny outside, we’ve got [Garoppolo] — who wouldn’t want to be here? We want to become a destination where everyone wants to be.”